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Situated learning theory proposed the notion of legitimate peripheral participation as central to a newcomer’s trajectory toward membership in a community of practice. Left underdeveloped were questions of legitimacy was conferred or denied. The work of Leigh Star points to ways of addressing these questions by considering the relation between trajectories of membership—the adoption of and conferral of identities upon newcomers—and trajectories of naturalization—particularly in the contingent process of taken-for-grantedness of classification systems. This article examines how category work around the issue of calculus-readiness, tied to a longstanding identification of engineering with mathematic, shapes the activity of students, staff, and faculty involved in a diversity program in a prestigious U.S. college of engineering. The specific focus is on how an orientation to calculus-readiness organized trajactories for students in the program. The interplay of trajectories of membership and trajectories of naturalization is illustrated through the case of one student’s struggles for legitimacy within the program and the college.
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STRUGGLING FOR LEGITIMACY !
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RUNNING HEAD: STRUGGLING FOR LEGITIMACY
Struggling for legitimacy:
Trajectories of membership and naturalization in the sorting out of engineering students
Kevin O’Connor
Frederick A. Peck
Julie Cafarella
University of Colorado Boulder
Keywords: situated learning; classification infrastructures; learning trajectories
Corresponding Author:
Kevin O’Connor
kevin.oconnor@colorado.edu
303-492-8554
In press, Mind, Culture, & Activity
STRUGGLING FOR LEGITIMACY !
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RUNNING HEAD: STRUGGLING FOR LEGITIMACY
Struggling for legitimacy:
Trajectories of membership and naturalization in the sorting out of engineering students
Keywords: situated learning; classification infrastructures; learning trajectories
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Abstract
Situated learning theory proposed the notion of legitimate peripheral participation as
central to a newcomer’s trajectory toward membership in a community of practice. Left
underdeveloped were questions of legitimacy was conferred or denied. The work of
Leigh Star points to ways of addressing these questions by considering the relation
between trajectories of membership—the adoption of and conferral of identities upon
newcomers—and trajectories of naturalization—particularly in the contingent process of
taken-for-grantedness of classification systems. This article examines how category
work around the issue of calculus-readiness, tied to a longstanding identification of
engineering with mathematic, shapes the activity of students, staff, and faculty involved
in a diversity program in a prestigious U.S. college of engineering. The specific focus is
on how an orientation to calculus-readiness organized trajactories for students in the
program. The interplay of trajectories of membership and trajectories of naturalization is
illustrated through the case of one student’s struggles for legitimacy within the program
and the college.
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Introduction
Among the aspects of Leigh Star’s work that we most admire are her efforts to
keep in sight those who are located at the margins of social worlds or in the borderlands
between them; or, better, those who are forced to the margins or the borderlands by the
work of the network builders at the “centers of calculation” (Latour, 1987). Many
important themes of Star’s work can be found in her reflections on the work of Latour
and Actor Network Theory (Star, 1991). Latour’s main focus was on the system builders
at the center of networks. He showed, for example, how Pasteur—an exemplary network
builder—coordinated, disciplined, and dominated a wide range of actors: the anthrax
bacillus, veterinarians, farmers, petri dishes, sheep, statistical procedures, agricultural
societies, newspapers, the hygienist movement, all of whom he made mutually interested
in one another, mutually connected in an extensive network that transformed action in
France. Star argued for the importance of a complementary focus, for attention to those
on the periphery of the network, those “who have done the invisible work of creating a
unity of action in the face of a multiplicity of selves, as well as, and at the same time, the
invisible work of lending unity to the face” of the network builders, those who are “the
delegated to, the disciplined. She pointed to some effects of what Latour (1988) called
the “Pasteurization of France”:
Pasteur’s success meant simultaneously failure for those working in
similar areas, and a loss and world-destruction for those outside the germ
theory altogether. We are only now beginning to recover the elements of
that knowledge: immunology, herbal wisdom, acupuncture, the
relationship between ecology and health. (Star, 1991, p. 99)
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Star refused in her work to lose sight of failure, of loss, of world-destruction. She
persistently kept in mind how organizing work at the centers produce margins,
peripheries, and borderlands (Anzaldúa, 1987), and with these, suffering for those who
inhabit them.
In this article, we draw on Star’s work on categorization and classification
systems and argue for its importance to our own field of the learning sciences. This is a
perspective we share with some others; for example, Rogers Hall (2005) has argued that
Star’s work can be seen as a basis for “reconstructing the learning sciences” (see also,
e.g., Hall, 2001; Horn, 2005; Nolen, Horn, Ward, & Childers, 2011; Pea, 2004; Roth,
McGinn, Woszczyna & Boutonné, 1999; Stevens, 2000). Our human science perspective
on learning (O’Connor & Penuel, 2010) goes beyond traditional epistemological
conceptions of learning as the acquisition of knowledge to understand learning more
broadly in terms of ontological processes of becoming (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Packer &
Goicoechea, 2000).
Our focus here will be on the ontological work of “becoming an engineer,” which
we have earlier (Stevens, O’Connor, Garrison, Jocuns, & Amos, 2008; also O’Connor
2001, 2003) framed as involving, most fundamentally, not the acquisition or construction
of knowledge, but the navigation of institutional spaces in which one identifies oneself,
and is identified by others, in terms of prevailing institutional practices and categories
that are taken as central to engineering. These practices include, not “knowledge”
understood as some fixed and objective phenomenon, but the kinds of knowledge
displays for which engineering students are held accountable at different times and in
different places. Our emphasis has been on understanding learning as the organizing of
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access—or denial of access—to valued and desired futures (O’Connor & Allen, 2010), a
process that involves becoming of not only individuals, but also of the communities of
practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991) or social worlds (Star & Griesemer, 1989) in which they
participate.
Attending to how processes of becoming (and not-becoming) are organized is
quite important in engineering education, given that there have long been patterns of
differential access that adversely affect certain groups. In this paper we attend to
processes of becoming by tracing the work involved in producing “legitimate”
participation for engineering students. In the section that follows, we describe why
legitimacy is such an important focus, and describe how processes of categorization and
classification are implicated in the production of legitimacy. We then turn to engineering
education and trace the ways that particular classification processes interact to construct
both standardized pathways for engineering students, and suffering for those students
who leak out of these standardized pathways.
Struggling for Legitimacy
The notion of legitimacy has been a theme in our study of students from
underrepresented groups in undergraduate engineering education. Understanding
processes of recognition and legitimacy has also been an important focus of researchers
in sociocultural theory and for educators interested in equity and learning as a deeply
social and cultural process. Star’s work has much to offer to our still developing
understanding of how legitimacy is granted, or denied, or struggled over (Penuel &
O’Connor, 2010), and the material and cultural systems that mediate these struggles.
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To understand Star’s contributions, we begin with a discussion of the notion of
legitimacy in sociocultural theorizing. This idea has been central to discussions of
learning since the foundational work of Lave & Wenger (1991). These authors famously
developed a view of learning as involving a trajectory of participation in a community of
practice. They focused on how newcomers to a community move from “legitimate
peripheral participation,” in which they are granted access to the ongoing practices of a
community but have less than full responsibility for their performance, towards full
participation in the practices of the community.
Lave & Wenger examined apprenticeships in a variety of communities of practice
to show that learning, understood as increasing access to positively valued participation
in a community, bears no necessary relationship to formal educational objectives or
structures. This was part of the effort of theorists of situated cognition and learning to
argue against then-dominant ways of understanding learning and its relationship to
schooling. To accomplish this, Lave & Wenger adopted a strategic focus on communities
of practice with certain characteristics, even while they recognized that not all
communities share these characteristics. They examined well-established communities
with clear boundaries (Nespor, 1994; O’Connor, 2001, 2003), such that each community
could be taken to be enclosed and unchanging (Lave, 2008). These communities were
homogeneous (Lave, 2008), in the sense that differences among members were treated
largely in terms of their relative advancement toward full participation in the community,
rather than, for example, in terms of how different participants had different histories
before arriving at the periphery of the given community of practice or how they were
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simultaneously located in other communities (Lave, 2008; Nespor, 1994; O’Connor,
2001, 2003).
Furthermore, Lave and Wenger’s communities were, for the most part, explicitly
benign, in the sense that it was possible, even expected, that all or nearly all newcomers
would move toward full participation within that community (Lave, 1996; O’Connor,
2001, 2003). Their focus on relatively benign and bounded communities was strategic.
Lave and Wenger started with communities of practice that were arranged so as routinely
to produce positive outcomes for virtually all participants and examined how learning
was organized in these communities. The observed absence of explicit transmission of
abstract knowledge, together with the successful learning of apprentices in these
communities, provided important evidence against then-prevailing accounts of how
successful learning happens.
This strategy had unintended consequences, however, which were noted by Jean
Lave in her discussion of how of Lave & Wenger’s work was subsequently interpreted.
Lave (2008) suggests that “Situated Learning has all too often been read as painting a
view of social life as closed, harmonious, and homogeneous, so that participants are
‘members’” (p. 288). She points out that Lave and Wenger’s original position “was
specifically not intended as a normative or prescriptive model for what to do differently
or how to create better classrooms or businesses” (2008, p. 283; cf. Lave & Wenger,
1991, pp. 40–1), and suggests that “[m]any who use the concept of ‘communities of
practice’ now seem ignorant of the original intent (and its limitations), and simply
assimilate it into conventional theory” (2008, p. 283).
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As O’Connor and Allen note (2010), the strategic assumptions made by Lave and
Wenger of relatively stable trajectories toward mastery of the practices of largely benign
communities have in some cases distracted researchers, especially those studying
learning in more complex and less benign conditions, from what seems to a primary aim
of the perspective, that is, accounting for the organization of access to valued social
futures. In current U.S. and global communities, where our lives and trajectories are
intensely mediated by institutions and systemic inequities based on race, gender, and
class, understanding what counts as “legitimate peripheral participation” becomes much
more complicated. Left underdeveloped in many discussions of “legitimate peripheral
participation” since Lave & Wenger have been issues of how newcomers arrived at the
periphery of a community; which other community memberships these newcomers might
have; and what are the processes by which the status as “legitimate” is conferred or
denied (Lave, 2008; Nespor, 1994; O’Connor, 2003). It is here that we believe that the
work of Leigh Star can greatly contribute to our understanding of the power and
recognition work that is part of learning trajectories.
Trajectories of Naturalization and Trajectories of Membership
Bowker & Star (1999) make a key conceptual contribution to understanding
culturally, historically and institutionally situated participation by distinguishing between
two different aspects of how trajectories of participation are organized: trajectories of
membership and trajectories of naturalization. Trajectories of membership involve the
adoption of and conferral of identities upon those within a community or social
world. This dimension is a relation of people and membership. Trajectories of
naturalization involve the way objects become taken-for-granted in a community, where
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objects are “stuff and things, tools, artifacts and techniques, and ideas, stories, and
memories—objects that are treated as consequential by community members” (p. 298).
Most learning research on trajectories of participation involves an emphasis
on trajectories of membership, without careful attention to how objects that have become
naturalized through contingent historical processes enter into ascriptions or denial of
membership. But Bowker & Star make clear that this naturalization of objects is crucial
in understanding membership because it is the process through which norms and values
become embodied in practices of everyday life. Bowker & Star explain that
naturalization “means stripping away the contingencies of an object’s creation and its
situated nature” (p. 299). In this perspective, interactions among people are always
mediated by objects, because it is through objects of various kinds that people become
seen as a certain type of people. To draw on our work for an example, an engineering
student who can’t pass calculus, no matter how talented she is in other ways that might
eventually be recognized as important in engineering practice, will not get to remain an
“engineering student”—calculus ability, understood in terms of specific accountable
knowledge displays (Stevens et al. 2008) has become a deeply naturalized and taken-for-
granted aspect of engineering and engineering education, and assessments and
identifications of students who are on a trajectory toward becoming an engineer are made
on the basis of this naturalized object.
The contribution that notions of objects and naturalization make to our
understanding of trajectories of participation can be seen in Bowker and Star’s view of
communities of practice:
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The relationship of the newcomer to the community largely revolves
around the nature of the relationship with the objects and not,
counterintuitively, directly with the people. This sort of directness only
exists hypothetically—there is always mediation by some sort of
object. Acceptance or legitimacy derives from the familiarity of action
mediated by member objects. (p. 299)
This perspective on membership and legitimacy foregrounds the role of action
mediated by member objects. Bowker and Star make clear that dynamics of membership
and trajectories of naturalization can be analytically distinguished, but in life, the
histories of objects and cultural practices that mediate our participation in given contexts
are hard to disentangle. We suspect this is why these concepts have been challenging to
access and leverage in social analysis by learning scientists and other researchers.
In our studies of engineering education, we find this dual focus on processes of
membership and identification, and processes of classification and naturalization to be
particularly powerful. Below, we illustrate how attention to both can help us understand
how naturalized objects and classifications systems serve to produce trajectories that
reproduce injustices (Hall, 2005).
Navigating engineering education: Experience in the borderlands
Our analytic focus in this paper is on the organization of the trajectory of Peter, a
junior in electrical and computer engineering at State University, the flagship campus of
the university system of a western US state. Peter is white, a first generation college
student, and is legally blind and partially deaf. In high school, he had been part of a
school robotics team, and his science teachers had encouraged him to become an
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engineer. He recalls that he didn’t really know what engineering was, but that he liked
making and building stuff. Peter applied to several different engineering schools, with a
preference for State U. because it was “better” than the other schools to which he had
applied. He was initially rejected by the College of Engineering at State U., but was later
admitted into the College’s “Access Program,” which is how we came to meet Peter. The
Access Program admits about 30 “next tier” students each year, that is students who
“missed the cut” in the regular admissions process but who, in the judgment of program
staff, “demonstrate potential” to succeed in an engineering major. While not officially
framed as a program for students from underrepresented groups, the Access Program in
practice is made up almost entirely of women, minorities, people with disabilities, and
first-generation students. Peter was offered a place in this program, and through this route
became an engineering major.
Peter is one of many students we have followed in the Access Program who is
navigating engineering studies supported by a program meant to provide more equitable
access to a degree and careers in engineering. In studying the Access Program, and the
experiences and trajectories of students in the program, we are examining both the
personal stories of students, as well as the systems of classification that mediate – both
enabling and constraining – their processes of becoming an engineer. To do so, we have
been conducting field-based ethnographic work, including ethnographic observations of
routine activities, ethnographic interviews, and focus groups. Our data include fieldnotes,
meeting minutes, and content logs and transcriptions of video and audio recordings. Our
analysis involved concurrent engagement in data collection and data analysis through
multiple iterative cycles. We are drawing on Peter’s experiences and positioning to better
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understand how people, as Hall put it, “inhabit the borderlands created by the competing
demand of different classification systems” (Hall, 2005, p. 148).
Peter’s case is a complicated one. As we will describe below, he struggles with
gaining legitimacy in engineering through the naturalized route of displays of
mathematical competence, a struggle that is mediated through the classification systems
of the discipline and the practices that are organized around it. At the same time, he is
engaged in considerably more engineering than most students in the College of
Engineering; he has invented and patented a device and started a business around it. This
does not currently locate him on a trajectory to legitimacy within the College, for reasons
that we will describe. The specific complexities of Peter’s case are what make this a
useful case to consider in a more complicated way of understanding how people
become—or fail to become—engineers.
Naturalized Categories in Engineering Education
In this section, we describe some of the classification systems that are at work in
shaping the trajectories of students, including Peter. Our focus is on the naturalized
understanding of mathematics as being at the core of engineering and engineering
education, and on the ways in which this naturalized understanding is realized in the
objects and practices of State U. First, we briefly describe how mathematics came to be
so central to engineering education—a status it has held for only about fifty years in the
United States. Second, we discuss the “curriculum flowchart” of engineering, an object
that realizes the centrality of mathematics and organizes the activities and sensemaking of
those in the School of Engineering. Third, we turn to practices of testing and grading, the
primary ways that students get “sorted out” (Bowker & Star, 1999) with respect to
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mathematics. Finally, we discuss how these various systems organize the trajectory of
Peter in the School of Engineering.
Mathematics as the (contested) core of engineering
In the late 19th century, an American engineer beginning his career (in reality, it
was almost always “his” career) likely would have started on the shop floor and learned
his craft through a practice-based apprenticeship. In those days, engineering was a craft,
practiced by masters who relied on “design experience and rules of thumb” (Seely, 1999,
p. 289). By 1965, aspiring engineers would experience something very different. Instead
of a shop floor, they were likely to find themselves sitting at a desk in a classroom at a
four-year university. Gone was the practice-based apprenticeship, replaced by a
curriculum based in theory (viz. math and science). Gone too was the image of an
engineer as a craftsman, replaced by an image of the engineer as a rational technicist. As
Seely (1999) traces, over the course of 80 years the academic study of math and science
became naturalized in engineering education.
Two broad trajectories of naturalization contributed to the central place
mathematics and science currently hold in the field of engineering and engineering
education. First was the emergence in the U.S. of new technologies such as electricity
that appeared to defy the commonsense rules of thumb that had previously guided
engineering design. In addition, the expansion of land grant colleges, along with an
emerging belief in the power of math and science to make the world better, began a
general trend to push professional preparation out of apprenticeships and into
universities. Even so, university engineering programs at the start of the 20th century were
dominated by practical concerns. While these programs involved some math and science,
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the curriculum remained grounded in practice, and students spent a good deal of time in
machine shops and at drafting tables (Reynolds, 1992; Seely, 2005)
A second influence on the field of engineering in the U.S. came from the influx
of European engineers into the U.S. during the early part of the 20th century. In much of
Europe, engineering was already a theoretical discipline. European engineers were
trained in physics and mathematics, and they approached engineering problems as
applied exercises in these disciplines. They brought this sensibility with them when they
came to the U.S. Concerned by what they perceived as American engineers’ poor
technical training, European engineers turned their sights to education systems and
practices. Here the trajectories of students and European engineers and U.S. students
became mutually coordinated. Students were entering universities to learn engineering,
and European engineers were entering universities to teach it. Guided by a belief that
engineering was a technical discipline resting on a foundation of basic mathematics and
science, European approaches to engineering began to transform engineering education,
at the same time as the rise of the rational thinker in the American imagination (Seely,
1999).
The transformation of engineering education was not a smooth one, however,
and debates over the nature of engineering and engineering education were “loud and
prolonged” (Seely, 2005, p. 116). While this debate took place largely on university
campuses, it can be read as a struggle over the nature of engineering itself, as a practice-
based trade or as a theory-based profession. Geopolitics entered this debate in the form of
the Second World War. Pre-war, engineering faculty were primarily occupied with
teaching. Research was rare, and what research was conducted was small-scale, practical
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research driven by the needs of local industry. During and post-war, the Department of
Defense (DoD), which was determined to maintain an arsenal of cutting-edge vehicles
and weaponry, demanded basic research into explosives, propulsion systems, and
materials. Engineering faculty were determined that they, rather than researchers in the
basic sciences, should get this funding and its associated prestige. Soon basic research
was woven into the fabric of engineering schools, and curricula were twisted to match the
demands of the research. Machine shops were replaced with classrooms, drafting tables
with desks, and practical experience with math and science. By 1965, mathematics and
science were fully naturalized objects of the engineering curriculum (Seely, 1999; Seely,
2005).
While it is hard to dispute the central and gate-keeping role that mathematics and
science play in engineering education today—these have clearly become what Callon
(1986) calls an “obligatory passage point”—even now, these issues are contested, for
example, when engineering educators or industry representatives push for an
increased role in the curriculum for apprenticeships, internships, project-based design,
and the like. With the work of Star and others helping us attend to trajectories of
naturalization, we can then ask – how are these histories of priorities embodied in objects
and practices that mediate the trajectories towards engineering available to Peter and
other students?
The engineering curriculum flowchart: A naturalized system of classification
Struggles over the identity of engineering and engineering education, such as
those fought over the role of mathematics in the curriculum, have become part of the
infrastructure of institutions like State U., encoded into practices through such objects as
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curriculum flowcharts. Here is where we can see particular values and classifications,
naturalized in an earlier era, institutionalized in practices that determine who can become
an engineer, and through what route.
Peter, and all students in the College of Engineering, have to “pass” math and
science classes in order to proceed through the engineering course sequences. Passing the
three-course sequence called “Calculus for Engineers” is a necessary accomplishment for
engineering students. Inscribed in the course sequence is history of how math and science
“won” over craft apprenticeships, briefly described above; but this victory is now
naturalized, to use Bowker and Star’s term. The centrality of mathematics and science
can be seen in the many tightly linked math and science courses that are part of the
sequence, compared with the two “projects courses” that are part of the first and fourth
year—widely separated and disconnected from the rest of the curriculum.
Via the flowchart, the institution legitimizes certain students and delegitimizes
others; students whose activities correspond with those inscribed in the flowchart are
legitimized whereas students whose activities deviate from the flowchart are not. Because
of the way calculus is inscribed into the flowchart, passing calculus is an accomplishment
that legitimizes a student. But what about designing and patenting a widget? This
accomplishment is not inscribed onto the flowchart and is therefore invisible to the
institution.
Moreover, as Nespor (1994, 2007) points out, the flowchart provides resources for
students to locate and construct themselves in relation to the institution. The flowchart
translates time (measured in semesters) to space, and produces a standardized “path” onto
which students reckon themselves in spatial terms. For example, students talk about being
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“ahead” or “behind.” These reckonings are value-laden; it is much better to be “ahead”
than “behind,” and being “behind” brings with it costs in terms of money, time, and
status. Notice that these categorizations are based on certain assumptions (e.g.,
mathematics is central to engineering) that were once clearly local, situated, and fought
over, and are now taken for granted.
Figure 1. Engineering Curriculum Flowchart
The flowchart invites classification of students according to whether they have passed
particular courses. For math courses, this classification is done via two interwoven
practices: testing and grading. Taken together, these practices serve to translate students
to marks on paper. The marks take the form of letter grades, and these grades serve as the
mechanism by which the University controls the movement of students through the
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flowchart. Depending on the grade a student receives, she is either granted or denied
passage through the flowchart. Passage from one course to the next is binary, and this
gives certain categories heightened importance. For Access students, the category that
determines passage into the next math class is a B-.
Notice the logic inscribed in these objects and practices. The rectangles on the
flowchart segment content into courses, bounded in time and content. The arrows
assemble these courses into a rigid sequence. Taken together the flowchart inscribes a
logic of learning as a linear process that occurs in discrete chunks of content and time.
The rigidity of the arrows implies that there is only one path through these chunks. The
binary category of “passing” suggests that there is a well-defined level of mastery that
each chunk requires of the previous chunks, and because this mastery is defined by
practices of testing and grading, there is an implication that these practices provide a
suitable mechanism to ascertain mastery.
Despite the impersonal and rigid nature of the flowchart, testing and grading are
human work. This is the work by which students become attached to the categories that
control movement through the flowchart. To trace this work, one of us (Fred, a former
calculus teacher) observed a group of instructors as they went about the work of testing
and grading.
Classification through tests and grading
Hundreds of students at State U. receive grades from a small number of
instructors, and therefore grades must be mass-produced. For math classes, the mass-
production of grades is done through testing. In overview: tests are composed of
problems; students provide solutions to these problems by making inscriptions—a
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process through which students translate some piece of themselves into marks on paper;
and these inscriptions are mobilized into a separate room where instructors translate them
into scores—a different set of marks on paper.
Boundaries are important in testing. Tests are temporally and spatially bounded;
they start and end at prescribed times, and take place in prescribed rooms. Only marks
made within these boundaries will be mobilized into the grading room. Within the test
room, “inside” and “outside” take on heightened significance. No outside materials are
allowed to come in with students, and no inside materials are allowed to go out. Once a
student leaves the room she is not allowed back in, as this would give the student an
opportunity to bring something from the outside back in.
Outside of the test room, students are persons-in-motion. What they “know” is
constantly changing as they move through different spaces, with different people, across
time. Test problems are apparatus that project these time-bound persons-in-motion into
timeless inscriptions, which Latour (1986) calls immutable mobiles. The conversion of
persons-in-motion into immutable mobiles is a key feature of tests; this is what allows a
mass of persons to be assembled simultaneously in the grading room, which in turn
makes the mass-production of grades possible. But tests, like x-rays (Bowker & Star,
1999), are necessarily incomplete, and are out of date as soon as they are administered. In
an exam, a student might not be able to figure out how to begin a problem. In a different
space, she might ask a friend for help. With a small amount of assistance, the student
might be able to solve the majority of the problem herself. Inside the test room she cannot
transgress the boundary that separates her from her companion. The result is that she
can’t begin the problem, and whatever knowledge she has fails to be inscribed. Another
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student walks out of the test room and immediately comes up with a strategy to solve a
problem. It’s too late. The boundary has been crossed. He can’t go back in, his projection
has been inscribed.
After students take a test, their inscriptions are mobilized into a separate room,
where they are aggregated and translated into numerical scores, in a process called
grading. Grading is done by instructors and their student assistants, all in the same room
at the same time. Grading is designed to be objective and impersonal. To accomplish this,
instructors create standardized solution forms and associate different parts of the
standardized solution with numerical scores. These standard forms and scores are called
“rubrics.” Graders coordinate a student’s inscriptions with the rubric, translating the
inscription into numerals via the rules inscribed in the rubric.
Rubrics work to standardize grading, but there is a possibility that some graders
will interpret the rubric differently than others, and this will lead to score differences.
Instructors negotiate various interpretations before and during grading in an attempt to
apply consistent rules to all students.
Further standardization is achieved by having the same person, or a small group
of people, grade all of instances of a problem. For example, one grader will grade the first
problem, and a different person will grade the second problem, etc. The effect of all of
this is a system like an assembly line, where tests are passed from grader to grader
accumulating in stacks as they await grading. Graders develop a routine: pick up the next
book in the stack, flip to the designated problem, coordinate the student’s inscription with
the standard form, write the points, put the book into the next grader’s stack, pick up the
next book, flip to the designated problem, etc. To the extent that the humanity of both
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students and graders is absent from this process, it is by design, all in the name of
standardization and objectivity.
And yet, humanity is always present. Most obviously, the humanity of the graders
is present in the negotiated agreements that dictate applications of the rubric. Humanity is
also present in the rubric itself, which is a material embodiment of human decisions.
Persons decide on both the standard form of a solution and the associated points that are
inscribed in the rubric. Student scores, of course, are contingent on these decisions.
Students take multiple tests per semester, each of which is translated into a
numerical score via the grading process. Students also do other work in the course, which
is also translated into numerical scores. At the end of the semester this set of scores is
assembled into a final grade.
The first step in assembling a final grade is to assign each component of the
assembly a relative weight, and to use these weights to produce a weighted average of the
components. This process effectively translates a set of numerical scores into a single
numerical score—contingent, we hasten to add, on the relative weights assigned to each
component.
Now the task is to translate the numerical score into a letter grade. Different math
courses use different systems to accomplish this translation. Most systems rely on some
sort of normative comparison between students based on the distribution of final scores.
Some systems are rule-based, for example, a course which sets a C- as 1.5 standard
deviations below the mean of the final scores. Other systems are more heuristic, for
example a course that lists the final scores in descending order and uses “natural breaks”
as categorical boundaries. In both systems, students are categorized based on how they
STRUGGLING FOR LEGITIMACY !
23
perform compared to one another, instead of how they perform in relation to a fixed
standard. Ultimately this means that a student’s final grade is contingent on both the
system used in the course and on the performance of the student’s classmates.
Final grades, then, are produced via a cascade of inscriptions. Students produce
inscriptions in response to test problems, these inscriptions are assembled and translated
into a numerical score, and these numerical scores are assembled and translated into a
final grade. Institutional practices work to hide the subjectivity involved at each stage of
translation, however, as we have documented, students pass through multiple levels of
human decisions on they are translated into final grades, and the final grade itself—the
consequential classification of a student—is contingent on these human decisions.
A student’s classification could have been different. It could have been different if
the flowchart didn’t demand binary decisions about students, or if instructors weren’t
compelled to mass-produce grades, if the rules regarding boundaries were different, if the
test problems had been different, if the scores allotted to those problems had been
different, if the weights of the tests in the final assembly had been different, if different
students had taken the tests and produced different normative scores. If any of these
things had been different, so too might be the classification that is attached to any
individual student. These contingencies highlight the ways that infrastructural work is
human work, and call into question the very possibly of “objective” classifications of
students that underlies the logic of testing and grading at State U. This question takes on
heightened significance for students whose scores locate them on the border between a
“passing” grade and a “failing” grade.
Peter is one such student.
STRUGGLING FOR LEGITIMACY !
24
Peter, Struggling for Legitimacy
One commonsense way to tell Peter’s story would be to say that he is “behind” in
the flowchart. Indeed this is the institution’s story about Peter, and even Peter’s own story
at times. In high school, Peter took “regular math,” which did not include calculus. Most
students in the School of Engineering did take calculus in high school, and either moved
right onto the flowchart or even jumped “ahead” by two or more semesters—but not
Peter. In fact, Peter, like many Access Program students, didn’t even start on the
flowchart. Based on his score on a placement test at the beginning of his first year, Peter
took a two-semester version of Calculus 1 for engineers, a course that is not even
represented on the chart. Each of these courses took Peter two semesters to pass, which
meant that it took him four semesters to finish Calculus 1—four times longer than the
time allotted in the flowchart.
In the perspective that we’re developing here, though, this commonsense story
does not adequately capture Peter’s trajectory. We need to look more deeply at Peter’s
experiences, and interrogate the ways that classification practices have framed and
mediated these experiences. We see Peter’s story is a story of a biographical trajectory
“broken, twisted, and torqued” (Bowker & Star, 1999, p. 26) by infrastructure, of a
trajectory of membership mangled by mathematics, which for Peter is an object of
membership that refuses to be naturalized.
Recall first that Peter is legally blind. This classification in fact pulled Peter into
the engineering school via the Access program. But the disability it represents pushes
him to the borderlands of the flowchart when taken-for-granted practices, such as
STRUGGLING FOR LEGITIMACY !
25
presenting information visually on a board in front of the classroom, interact with the
impersonal nature of the flowchart. He explained to us in an interview:
This semester, one of the reasons I’m doing bad is because everything is
on the board, everything is written … It doesn’t really seem like a problem
to many people have, I guess, but, you know, when everything is written
on the board, and they expect you to learn everything from the board, and
you can’t actually see the board, then it’s huge. I’ve always been blind,
but I made it through high school because I could talk to my teachers after
that. But, you know, in college, now it’s like, I have a class before and
after, and I can’t stay to talk to them.
It took Peter over a year to obtain an accommodation for his blindness. Whereas in some
institutions, a categorization of blindness would initiate an automatic set of special
support services, at State U. such services can only be obtained after a student submits
documentation of the disability. For Peter this required an eye screening, which, in turn,
presented a financial obstacle. He says about the money needed to pay for the screening,
“I guess it’s not a big deal for a lot of people here, but for me it is. So that took a long
time.”
The flowchart simply cannot account for this. It assembles large numbers of
students (and their instructors) into courses in a standardized pathway, captured by boxes
and arrows. Institutional practices of testing and grading squeeze students into—and push
them through—this pathway. But when mathematics refuses to be naturalized, the boxes
rupture, and people leak into borderlands. This is where we find Peter. In the borderlands,
time is distorted. Calculus 1, a single-semester class on the flowchart, took him four
STRUGGLING FOR LEGITIMACY !
26
semesters. Peter has been at State U. for three years according to calendar time
(accumulating student debt during this time), but according to “flowchart time” he is still
in his first year. Denied progress along the engineering flowchart, Peter finds himself
taking classes in the College of Arts and Sciences. Taking these classes does more than
add to the amount of time and money Peter has given State University. It distances him
from peers in the College of Engineering while simultaneously pushing him outside the
boundaries of the trajectory the flowchart normalizes.
Inside the boxes of the flowchart, grading practices produce a shifting terrain for
students. Because scores are not assembled and translated into grades until the end of the
semester, students spend the entire semester accumulating scores without knowing how
these scores will translate into passing or failing. Depending on the semester, the course,
and the mix of students in the course, a 78 could be a passing or a failing grade. For Peter
this uncertainty has been especially pronounced. For each of his first four semesters, he
was within two points of a passing grade. Twice he found himself on the passing side of
the boundary. Twice he was on the failing side. For two full years, Peter lived with
uncertainty about his status as an engineering student. Even halfway through his fifth
semester, Peter was still uncertain whether he would pass Calculus 2. The successive
scores crystallize into one side of a binary—pass or fail—only at the end of the semester.
Peter is existing perpetually on the border between passing and failing, in doubt about an
outcome that is highly consequential in his struggle for legitimacy.
But despite his position in the borderlands, and indeed partly because of that
position, Peter has begun to reorganize his trajectory, engaging in heterogeneous
engineering with different naturalized systems, though ones that are not recognized or
STRUGGLING FOR LEGITIMACY !
27
legitimized within the college of engineering. Faced with mounting student loan debt and
fearing that he might get “kicked out” of the College of Engineering because of his low
math grades, Peter decided that he needed “a backup plan.” This prompted him to start a
company, in which he both invented and patented an upgrade for 3-D printers. He
assembled heterogeneous elements into a viable business, including business plans,
financial backers, patent lawyers, governmental infrastructure, and a knowledge of
manufacturing methods that he learned on his own because courses in manufacturing
usually do not happen “until the very end of some mechanical engineering degrees.” We
don’t yet know whether Peter will eventually receive an engineering degree; we do know
that he is actively seeking other forms of legitimacy that might not require one.
Conclusion
Peter’s story is just one of many we could have told. Students in the Access
Program occupy many borderlands, constituted differently depending on how their
personal trajectories intersect with and are torqued by the naturalized classification
systems of the College of Engineering. Some students find themselves caught between
high school and college, in their “5th year of high school” or “3rd semester of senior year,”
when their expectations of what college should be—largely based on the flowchart—is in
tension with the year of “extra preparation” required by the Access Program. Another is
caught between financial responsibilities to her immigrant working class family and
Access Program expectations that work at paid jobs can be limited to under ten hours per
week—an expectation based upon the workload required to stay on the flowchart, and an
expectation that would cause little difficulty for the largely middle class students that
make up the majority of the School of Engineering. Another finds himself overwhelmed
STRUGGLING FOR LEGITIMACY !
28
by what he calls “culture sickness” and depression, caught between the unfamiliar white
middle class culture of the College of Engineering and State U. more generally and his
own home community of Mexican immigrants in a city a couple of hours away—too
great a distance to easily travel and still keep up with the work required in order not to
fall too far “behind” on the flowchart.
Students in the Access Program are engaged in struggles for legitimacy, struggles
to be recognized as valued and legitimate participants in the College of Engineering. That
they are engaged in these struggles should not be surprising. They were initially rejected
by the College of Engineering, in most cases because they had not performed sufficiently
well in displays of knowledge related to the mathematical core of engineering, only to
gain entry at least partly on the basis of the very aspects of their personal trajectories that
would later come to marginalize them. The borderlands that they occupy are being
actively organized by the varied trajectories of membership and naturalization along
which they and the College of Engineering are traveling. For those of us interested in
understanding and supporting diverse learning trajectories it is important to trace this
organizing work, the dynamics of membership and histories of naturalization that mediate
them, through which participation is made consequential.
There’s little question that Peter and others are moving along trajectories that
torque them, that cause them suffering. Still, we see some reasons to be optimistic, about
Peter’s case and others. Agency and resistance in the face of naturalized categories that
push some people to the margins characterizes other participants in the Access Program
as well. One student, frustrated by what he saw as being “held back” by the program,
sought the support of a dean to leave the program but retain his status as a student in the
STRUGGLING FOR LEGITIMACY !
29
College of Engineering. Others, frustrated by some aspects of the program, chose to
organize a student group to gain some measure of additional control over their
trajectories while still remaining part of the program—and indeed, wishing to promote it
as a national model. The administration and staff of the Access Program are themselves
part of a fifty year effort to naturalize the category of “women and minorities [and later
people with disabilities] in science and engineering” (Lucena, 2000), an effort which
might open new trajectories and forms of legitimacy.
Peter’s design work in the borderlands, and all of these efforts at resistance, shine
a light on practices that are “left dark” (Bowker & Star, 1999, p. 321) by current
classifications in the school of engineering. These efforts also highlight the way that
borderlands can become spaces of possibility (hooks, 1989). We view resistance born of
“failure, loss, destruction” (Star, 1991) to be a worthy focus of research in the learning
sciences. And we see the work Leigh Star to be among the best guides to pursuing this
project.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: We are grateful, first and foremost, to Peter and the other
students in the Aspire program who generously and openly shared their experiences with
us. We thank the administrators of the Aspire program who welcomed us into their
program, and who work tirelessly on behalf of their students. We also wish to thank our
research collaborators Jacquelyn Sullivan, Beverly Louie, Beth Meyers, Tanya Ennis, and
Daria Kotys-Schwartz. Finally we thank Annie Allen for her close reads and suggestions
on earlier drafts, and the anonymous reviewers for their feedback. This material is based
on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1160264.
STRUGGLING FOR LEGITIMACY !
30
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